The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XIV

Thus we arrive at the closing moments of Casino Royale, in which Craig’s Bond fully embalms himself in the armor of his constructed persona, and steps out into the world to confront sinister villainy as a state-employed thug in elegant attire.

Even though the ending of Casino Royale was always intended to function as a gateway to the sequel (the initial versions of which were being written by Bond scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade as Casino Royale was filming), Casino Royale‘s ending feels less like a cliffhanger than it does the completion of the film’s arc. This is certainly how director Martin Campbell felt, who declined to return for its successor due to a feeling that a sequel would not add much to his work on Casino Royale. Still, Quantum of SolaceSkyfall, and Spectre will each, in their own way, see this finale as a kind of pause rather than a full statement. The Craig era exists in a constant push-and-pull wherein Bond’s identity is asserted and subsequently challenged.

The conversation with M consists of an embarrassing amount of exposition, most of which serves to clear up the mystery surrounding Vesper’s motivations. These motivations have been relatively obscure and clumsily dramatized, and will still remain a bit hazy after this conversation (this murkiness surrounding Vesper’s motivations, and her boyfriend, provides Quantum of Solace with its foundation). M’s comments to Bond contain much supposition along with the few facts she provides. If this conversation achieves anything dramatically, it is to refocus the film around Bond’s relationship to M, who chastises Bond for being coldhearted while also knowing that she needs him to be exactly who he is in order for him to be useful to her and the state she serves.

The conversation does not serve Craig’s Bond especially well, reducing him to a grim-faced listener. The film tosses away the iconic, nasty closing line of Fleming’s novel, suggesting that it is included more out of obligation to the source novel rather than out of clear dramatic purpose. In Fleming’s novel, it was a searing final exclamation mark in the hardboiled tradition, a blast of misogyny that extended from Bond’s wounded masculinity. Here, it is stated and then subsequently challenged, overwhelmed by M’s musings.

Vesper’s cell phone enables Bond to track down Mr. White. It’s suggested this was her intention all along. Mr. White is clearly somewhat negligent when it comes to the use of cell phone tech. Giving Vesper his personal number and retains the same phone after this affair is concluded. You’d think he would at least have the same sense as a low-class criminal and use a burner.

The finale, staged at Mr. White’s beautiful lakeside villa, concludes Bond’s character arc by showing that he has been absorbed by the character’s iconography. The sequence serves as a purpose statement for Bond: he’s the killer who brings violence wherever he goes, hunting down the criminal elements that cloak themselves in luxury and wealth.

Bond sports an atypically rakish outfit. Given that the dinner jacket was already presented mid-picture, costume designer Lindy Hemming was tasked with effectively created a Bond outfit that could out-Bond the dinner jacket, and she settled on the three-piece suit, which nods back to Connery’s attire in Goldfinger. Where Connery’s gray suit was tasteful, Craig’s is ostentatious. This pinstriped suit is not the suit of a gentleman educated in “Oxford or wherever,” to borrow Vesper’s words, but the suit of a hoodlum. The gangster-ish effect of the outfit is further magnified by Bond’s choice of weapon, which might as well be a Tommy gun.

His smug delivery of the “Bond, James Bond” line rings out both loud and hollow. This is, as Fleming once described him, the man who is only a silhouette. Death will follow in his wake. Cue, for the first time, the James Bond theme.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XIII

“The big picture.”

These words, lifted from Bond’s chastisement at M’s hands earlier in the film, reverberate with a darker significance as Bond murmurs them to Le Chiffre.

The “big picture” involves more than the details of the organization that employs Le Chiffre. The “big picture” suggests the entirety of the complex web of political power in which these individuals find themselves. With greater understanding of context also comes greater understanding of self, and thus the Craig films’ trajectory pairs its investigations into the shadowy corners of the “big picture” with ever deeper dives into the shadowy corners of Bond himself.

Craig’s Bond never comes to terms with his place as a pawn of state power, even if he craves the sense of purpose that comes with it. Bond often chooses to exceed or contradict the orders of his superiors to pursue his own impulses (this trait has always been part of the Bond character from his inception, but remains more prominent for Craig’s Bond, a man perpetually revolting against himself and the world around him). At this moment, having faced near-death at the hands of Le Chiffre, Bond will reject the role of a hired assassin to pursue an uncertain future with Vesper.

Bond recovers from his ordeal at Le Chiffre’s hands in scenic Lake Como (this being a Bond film, a standard hospital simply would not do), and the film takes the lull to fix its gaze on Bond and Vesper. The scenes that unfold here are, on a writing level, some of the weakest in the film, failing to properly showcase the complexities of these characters and their doomed romance.

Nevertheless, I remain entranced by Eva Green, who, even as she has to suffer the indignity of uttering incomprehensibly strange dialogue about Bond’s little finger, remains incandescent and enigmatic. Vesper has clearly begun to fray, though Casino Royale frustratingly fails to offer moments that truly allow for Vesper’s psychological state to take center stage. Vesper may be a less complex character in Fleming’s novel, but the equivalent material there does put Vesper’s emotional disintegration front-and-center. Still, Green makes the most of these little moments she’s given, underlining the way her guilt complex plays into Vesper’s idealization of Bond. 

M will suggest later to Bond that Vesper had made a deal with Mr. White for Bond’s life, and that Vesper likely knew through these days with Bond that her death was imminent. Thus, Vesper’s escape with Bond remains, for her, an excursion into fantasy before the end of her world, and we can observe moments where the fantasy is punctured by awareness of her own mortality.

I noted before that the plotting regarding Mathis fails to satisfy. This section certainly needs some notes of anxiety and menace, but the “Is he or isn’t he a traitor?” ambiguity leads nowhere. The film flirts with Hitchcockian suspense as Mathis provides Bond with a drink that may or may not be poisoned, but the scene never draws out the suspense enough to make it register.

The visible uncertainty that Craig brings to Bond’s admission to Vesper that he doesn’t know what a real job underlines the fragility of their romance. They have constructed fantasy versions of each other, each seeking an escape from their situation, one that the real world would likely shatter even if Vesper wasn’t carrying a secret burden. Vesper fully knows that it is a fantasy, but Bond does not.

When Bond and Vesper bid goodbye in the hotel lobby in Venice, you can see that Vesper knows she’s seeing Bond for the last time, that this is the last happy moment of her life and she wants it to sustain her through whatever follows. Vesper then becomes a prop, a cipher whose motivations are left to be explained by another character in the aftermath of her demise. 

The Venice section of the film had a different structure in earlier drafts of Casino Royale, allowing her the chance to speak for herself. Originally, Vesper’s suicide preceded the action climax. Bond found Vesper dead in their hotel room, along with a video created by Vesper in which she explained her actions, and then pointed him toward Gettler and the money. 

This structure was changed by Paul Haggis, who felt that that structure squandered the emotional momentum of Vesper’s betrayal. The final version does allow Bond’s emotional state to propel the action, but the gunfire and spectacle also has the effect of overwhelming the relationship between Bond and Vesper.

The overcomplicated mechanics by which Bond learns of Vesper’s betrayal are confusing and inelegant. Bond checks Vesper’s phone as he gets a call from M about missing money, then quickly calls the banker, Mendel, who is able to see that the funds are being withdrawn from a branch nearby. After this flurry of clunky exposition and coincidence, Bond leaps into action.

I very much like the sequence as Bond trails Vesper (she wears a red dress, a nod to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now). Bond, stung by the betrayal, instinctually returns to the role of a killer as he moves with purpose through the shadowy corridors of Venice (nicely lit by Meheux).

Earlier versions of the sinking house sequence were more subdued and might have been more dramatically balanced (early drafts had Bond facing off against only Gettler, not a group of thugs, thus making it a brutal brawl more akin to the stairway fight), but, likely in order to provide a stronger action climax, it became more complicated and grand.

The sinking house in Venice reinforces classic Bond formula (a climax in a imploding space, typically a villain’s lair, is a Bond staple, and one that all of the Craig films follow). The collapse of the Venician house serves as a metaphor for the collapse of Bond’s hopes for domesticity with Vesper, hopes which were always as vulnerable as a house suspended on the water.

The unfortunate effect of placing Vesper in the midst of this action climax is that, contrary to Haggis’ intent, Vesper becomes a prop, rather than its centerpiece. Confined to an elevator, she gets little else to do but scream as the house begins to disintegrate.

Gettler, the miniboss of the Venice setpiece, has an appealing retro look. He would have perhaps benefitted from some additional setup to make his appearance here more of an event, rather than justt serving as another unestablished character like Carlos from the Miami chase, appearing only to justify the existence of an action setpiece.

The geography and number of players remains murky throughout, so what gives this sequence definition and propulsion is the spectacle of Bond cutting his way through his surroundings with unflinching viciousness. He seems more Terminator-like than ever, yanking out a nail that has been buried in his shoulder with little concern. (One touch, visible if you break the sequence down shot-by-shot, is that Bond uses his Omega as a knuckle-duster, a nod back to Ian Fleming.)

Vesper defies Bond’s attempt to save her, choosing death rather than confrontation. The horrifying sight of her drowning is much more vivid and harrowing than Fleming’s version (suicide by overdose) could possibly have been if translated faithfully to the screen, further heightening the drama by making Bond an active participant, struggling but failing to save her.

Bond pulls Vesper from the water and begins administering CPR, only to recoil when he becomes aware of his actions. Bond’s identity crisis, emblazoned on Craig’s contorted, red-eyed face, has come to a head. Bond belongs neither to the service nor to Vesper. He gives in to his grief and moves to Vesper, cradling her lifeless form.

Thus Casino Royale offers an image that will become one of the recurrent motifs of the Craig era, appearing in Casino RoyaleQuantum of Solace, and Skyfall: Bond holding the body of someone he failed to save, while a solitary witness looks on.

Here, the onlooker is Mr. White.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XII

Dinner scenes have traditionally been a staple of the Bond formula, though they have dissipated with time as the series has come to privilege the spectacle of action over the spectacle of sensuality. Even during extended dinner scenes, films, for both practical and aesthetic considerations, tend to deny viewers the spectacles of stars chewing. Not so here. While enjoying caviar on a cracker, Craig’s Bond chews and talks with his mouth full. The Pierce Brosnan Bond films, as we have noted, presented Bond as a manicured image, and the Craig films have carried on a similar preoccupation with posture and presentation. The difference lies in the way that the Craig films sustain and frequently highlight the tension between the image and the man.

This moment of Bond consuming food, in all of its human awkwardness, coincides with a nice bit of banter between Bond and Vesper in which Bond’s constructed image briefly slips away. Bond attempts to charm Vesper through a manufactured line only to provoke her laughter. Bond, deflated, becomes sheepish and awkward: “I thought it was a good line.” Vesper clarifies that she wasn’t laughing in derision, but pleasure: “It was a very good line.” How easily, though, Craig’s Bond returns to his performance just a few moments later. Vesper asks him, “It doesn’t bother you, killing those people?” He responds, with typical deflection, “I wouldn’t be very good at my job if it did.”

Bond takes notice of Vesper’s Algerian love knot necklace, which will become an object of greater scrutiny in Quantum of Solace. This necklace was given slightly more attention in earlier drafts of Casino Royale as a clear set-up for the sequel, in which Bond was always intended to find Vesper’s Algerian boyfriend (Casino Royale was conceived and approached as a two-film enterprise, though the planned narrative emphasis for Quantum of Solace evolved during that film’s production). The necklace is a beautiful, expressive prop, a kind of leash for Vesper, but, also, in its spiral motif, a kind of callback to Vertigo.

The awkward, vague mechanics by which Bond suspects that Mathis is working for Le Chiffre set up a hazy, unfulfilling narrative trajectory in which Mathis’ ultimate allegiance remains ambiguous (though M hints that he’s innocent, and Quantum of Solace carries that thread and fully exonerates him). The moment where Le Chiffre suggests that Mathis is on his side stands out as some especially clunky signposting, as though the filmmakers were aware that Bond’s exclamation of Mathis’ name at the dinner table was a moment of profoundly weak dramatization and desperately needed some reinforcement.

Bond’s pursuit of Vesper, which builds momentum and then jarringly cuts things short with an astonishing, disruptive stunt, makes a spectacle of Bond’s failure. The destruction of Bond’s car, a glittering, expensive Aston Martin, serves as a keen visual introduction to the torture sequence that follows. Bond’s fleeting victory at the casino now gives way to emasculation and near-castration.

Casino Royale does not wholly commit to the wanton sadism of the sequence from Fleming’s novel, but it nevertheless feels like an astonishing break from anything that preceded it in the film franchise (even the savagery of Licence to Kill feels somewhat tame when compared to Casino Royale‘s torture scene). Looking back, there’s something astonishing about the way in which Casino Royale skated by with a PG-13 rating. The filmmakers did try to stack the deck in their favor by leavening the scene with some humor, even if it is of a very dark, nasty stripe, and were seemingly successful (when I saw Casino Royale in theaters back in 2006, this scene got the biggest laughs of any scene in the movie).

The sequence remains stark, fixated on the human body and the mechanics of torture (here, Le Chiffre’s implement for inflicting pain is a thick piece of rope, which allows for the camera to capture its horrifying sway; Fleming’s novel had Le Chiffre using a carpet beater, undoubtedly a less cinematic implement). Phil Meheux’s cinematography casts everything in shadows, the orange tones of sweaty, shiny flesh standing out against the dark background. Craig’s imposing physique has been the subject of the camera’s attention before, but where he seemed imposing before, his form now seems fragile and impotent.

The undercurrent of homoeroticism in Le Chiffre’s attention to Bond here (“You’ve taken good care of your body,” as well as his final vulgar threat to Bond) establishes a kind of precedent for Craig Bond villains, who are consistently presented with a kind of ambivalent sexuality. That Bond has been typically positioned as the embodiment of heterosexual fantasy juxtaposed against villains who are coded as homosexual or somewhat deficiently masculine is hardly a novel observation. Indeed, that dynamic hardly originates with Bond. Pulp storytelling, as a default position, often reinforces masculine fantasy. But the dynamics of desire are always somewhat slippery, and therefore pulp storytelling is also the arena in which cultural notions begin to fracture and self-implode. With Craig’s tenure as Bond, Bond’s default position in this schematic feels less fixed than ever before.

Craig’s Bond does his best to maintain his sense of masculine ego, egging Le Chiffre on and then attempting to humiliate him with a scatalogical put-down when Le Chiffre tries to confirm his position of power and control. The scene, as written, leaves a lot to be desired (Mikkelsen and Craig are both to be credited with cutting through some of the exposition here), but Craig invests it all with such ferocity and haunting despair that it achieves greatness. The moment that leaves the greatest impression are those seconds where Bond’s strained laughter gives way to shudders and sobs, his bravado crumbling before our eyes.

Le Chiffre tells him that he and Vesper are expendable, and Bond registers Le Chiffre’s words as truth. Bond’s only possible victory over his opponent lies in willful resignation, in his refusal to yield even in the face of brutal death. This is the path Bond takes. But Bond and Le Chiffre are not the only people playing the game.

 

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XI

The Craig era’s extraordinary ambivalence about the James Bond character manifests itself in the way it routinely denies Bond the clear victories that his predecessors often enjoyed. The Craig era predominantly offers narratives of loss and failure. Consider how Craig’s Bond does not earn the traditional “Bond and a girl” finale until he quits the secret service at the end of Spectre. His only true victory can be escaping himself.

In this section of Casino Royale, Bond meets with his first unqualified failure and responds with suicidal petulance. Bond’s underlying pathology is such that failure is unbearable to him; it shatters his constructed self and forces him to confront the void within. We’ll see similar kinds of death-wish responses in Quantum of Solace, wherein Bond’s loss of Vesper sends Bond careering out of control, as well as in Skyfall, where a failed mission sends Bond on a bad bender.

Bond masks his profound psychological instability with calm reserve and impeccable attire, and the morning after his fight with Obanno, Bond seems to be his typically collected self as he and Mathis converse on the hotel balcony. Mathis impishly prods Bond about Vesper. Bond gives no quarter.

Giancarlo Giannini again proves that he’s one of the film’s most welcome presences. Here, Giannini’s Mathis once again proves to be a keen improviser. He’s used the bodies Bond hid in the stairwell to strip away some of Le Chiffre’s resources by framing one of Le Chiffre’s henchmen.

It’s a shame that this essential intelligence is nowhere in evidence when Mathis is reduced to a spectator during the card game, dumbly narrating the beats of the game for the audience. Bond’s loss at Le Chiffre’s hands would be so much better if it wasn’t accompanied by heavy signposting about Le Chiffre’s “tell.”

First time viewers don’t know this yet, but it’s clear by the end that Vesper sets Bond up for failure, enabling Le Chiffre to provoke Bond into an overconfident maneuver that strips him of all of his assets. This lends her confrontation with Bond some complexity, and it’s a strong scene for Green. It’s a weaker scene for Craig. The “bloody idiot” line feels much too scripted for its own good and Craig is forced to stumble over it.

He’s much better in the moment that follows, where Bond snaps “Do I look like I give a damn?” to a bartender who asks him whether he wants his martini shaken or stirred. It’s a gag about Bond history, but also a significant character statement. Previous Bonds were defined by their unwavering sense of taste, but Craig’s Bond wears all the accoutrements of luxury as an adopted persona that he quickly discards when caught in the grip of an identity crisis (see also his extended bender at the beginning of Skyfall). When this Bond is humiliated and confused, he just wants to get trashed.

Blinded by rage, Bond grabs a steak knife off of a table and rushes to kill Le Chiffre. If he can’t win the poker game, he’ll assuage his ego by defeating Le Chiffre with brute force, even if it costs him his life.

Irresistibly cool CIA agent Felix Leiter stops Bond and offers him a less dangerous road to victory. Jeffrey Wright’s Leiter gets such a promising introduction in Casino Royale, an ally whose cooler head balances out Bond’s hotter temperament. Alas, that potential is never quite fulfilled in these movies, but Wright still makes the most of his material.

Bond returns to the game with renewed confidence, much to Vesper’s surprise and Le Chiffre’s dismay. In a last-ditch move to dispatch Bond, Valenka poisons Bond’s martini, forcing Bond to stumble out of the game.

The poisoning serves as a loose analogue to a suspenseful section of Fleming’s novel involving a gun disguised as a cane. Even if some of the sequence’s grace notes (like Bond inducing vomiting by swallowing a lot of salt) are clever, it’s all a bit ridiculous.

Bond has a convenient medical pack in his car, including a self-defibrillator, and establishes a link to MI6’s medical team. M and the MI6 crew watch on via computer monitors as Bond hovers near death, issuing instructions to Bond about how to prevent death. Bond is ultimately saved via Vesper-ex-machina; he falls unconscious before he can activate the defibrillator, only for Vesper to stumble upon him. She (improbably) knows exactly what to do to save his life.

It’s clearly meant to balance the Bond/Vesper relationship, but as a result of the sequence’s awkwardness, it doesn’t connect on a dramatic level. Bond’s unflabbable resolve to return for the game is good for a chuckle, though, as is Vesper’s flabbergasted response.

Bond’s return to the game gives us a classic Bond one-liner (“That last hand nearly killed me”), a Connery-style line that Craig delivers with Dalton-style intensity. Craig’s Bond so often feels distinct from the previous Bonds, but in this moment he does seems to exist on a continuum with his predecessors.

As soon as the line has been delivered, Bond’s victory in the card game is assured. For anyone who knows poker, the final hand seems absurdly overdramatized. That said, the climactic poker hand allegedly replicates an actual poker hand that occurred while the film’s creative team was playing poker to learn the rules, so perhaps my complaint is baseless.

Having won the day, Bond’s first thought is of a celebratory dinner. “You were almost dead an hour ago,” Vesper reminds him. Bond doesn’t acknowledge her remark. Bond’s enduring appeal as a fantasy figure lies in his flippant attitude toward death. Even here, where Bond’s bravado is so directly rooted in a kind of madness, it’s impossible to deny its allure.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part X

The high-stakes poker game has only just begun, but now Casino Royale takes a break from the card table. Somewhat burdened by blockbuster expectations–the days in which Bond could deliver a low-key, relaxed thriller like From Russia with Love now firmly in the series’ rear-view mirror–Casino Royale never lingers too long on the card game itself. Accordingly, this film adaptation of Casino Royale fails to capture sonething of the atmosphere that Fleming’s novel conjured up with its memorable opening lines:

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling–a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension–becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”

Of course, Fleming knew he couldn’t sustain his thriller on atmosphere alone, and threw in some narrative devices to heighten the suspense (including a failed bomb attempt, and a tense moment involving a gun disguised as a cane). Fleming’s devices are more subdued and better-integrated into the game itself than the film’s equivalent sequences. To the film’s credit, this next action beat serves as an indispensable component of the film’s structure, and proves to be one of the defining sequences of the entire Daniel Craig era.

With the help of Mathis, Bond bugs Le Chiffre’s inhaler, grabs Vesper, and collects his gun from the front desk. Bond’s intent here remains very vague, but Bond clearly intends to use Vesper to maintain a viable alibi for whatever follows.

Surprising both Le Chiffre and Bond, Obanno has arrived to threaten Le Chiffre and recover his money. Never before has a Bond film so thoroughly humiliated its primary antagonist as Casino Royale humiliates Le Chiffre here, and it’s a credit to Mikkelsen that Le Chiffre can both seem utterly out of his league against Obanno while still retaining an air of menace.

Le Chiffre’s relationship with his henchwoman/lover Valenka has a chilly air; they interact as though they’re robots. Le Chiffre certainly doesn’t care enough about her to stop Obanno from nearly mutilating her, and while Valenka seems loyal (even after Le Chiffre shows that he’s willing to sacrifice her to save his own skin), she doesn’t display any affection for Le Chiffre.

When Bond and Vesper are discovered (their cover is blown when Bond’s earpiece is spotted), they become entangled vicious close-quarters brawl in a stairwell. Just how vicious the brawl feels depends a bit on which cut of the film you’re seeing, due to minor edits that were made for the film’s theatrical release in major markets.

Casino Royale is not the first Bond film to allow a Bond girl to be distressed by the violence of Bond’s world (GoldenEye has Natalya confront Bond about it), but it is the first to suggest that this violence can result in legitimate psychological trauma. Vesper emerges from this encounter with Obanno somewhat broken by the experience. Bond doesn’t emerge unscathed, either, but he’s also a professional killer; he buries the memory with a glass of whiskey and re-emerges at the card table, exchanging barbs with Le Chiffre as though little happened. But Vesper isn’t part of Bond’s world. He finds Vesper, in a sequence seemingly inspired by Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, alone, sitting in the shower with her clothes on.

The scene was originally scripted (following after Alfredo Garcia) to feature Vesper in the nude. Eva Green smartly objected, and her argument with director Martin Campbell over the moment was settled when Craig also took her side. We’re lucky that Green won the debate, since the alternative possibility feels rather icky, particularly given the structures of masculine fantasy that undergird the Bond character and his world.

Bond joins Vesper in the shower, cleaning the imagined blood off her fingers with his mouth. It’s an awkward gesture that Craig plays awkwardly, and in its sheer strangeness and clumsy physicality it gives some weird humanity to Craig’s man-child Bond, as though he’s fumbling for a way to relate to Vesper in this moment of grief.

So Bond turns the water temperature up and together they sit beneath the spray, neither one knowing how to process the moment or its implications.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part IX

Following Casino Royale‘s narrative reset, the film settles into a relaxed groove where narrative urgency doesn’t overwhelm these sequences of beautiful people talking and eating in beautiful locations. This rhythm hearkens back to the Fleming novels, which are largely structured around meals in exotic locations and the conversation that accompanies them. Casino Royale‘s “Montenegro”–actually the Czech Republic–is generally attractive, but lacks any true distinguishing features. If we can’t have the exotic, at least we get the luxurious. Following Casino Royale, the Craig films will never again return to this pleasurable tempo, opting instead for the more propulsive feel that came to mark the Brosnan films (and, to an extent, the Dalton films before them).

Bond and Vesper’s primary mode of interaction, extending from their first meeting, remains feisty banter that contrasts their personalities and agendas. In this case of “opposites attract,” both characters somewhat represents the other’s idea of an enemy; for Vesper, Bond embodies the sexist, egotistical, reckless sort of masculinity she’s spent her career struggling against, and, for Bond, Vesper models the bureaucratic control Bond loathes coupled with controlled, powerful femininity.

Bond and Vesper’s “religion” exchange in the cab strikes the right balance of clever and playful, but Bond teasing Vesper about her codename being “Stephanie Broadchest” plays less well. This nod/send-up of the franchise’s penchant for outrageous female character names feels a bit too crass and blunt for this Bond, even taking his impish streak into account. This exchange does, however, reinforce Craig’s Bond’s abhorrence for codenames.

So when Bond and Vesper check into the hotel, he defiantly chucks aside all pretense of cover story. Craig’s Bond prefers to play the spy game as a clearly-defined match between himself and his foe, having little time for what he perceives to be half-hearted subterfuge that amounts to mere pageantry. We’ll see Craig’s Bond do this again and again in the ensuing films, even as a seasoned agent.

Bond’s car gets another upgrade: now MI6 gifts him with a gadget-equipped Aston Martin DBS V12. The in-story justification is that he requires an expensive car to reinforce his backstory as a high-stakes poker player, and the DBS also serves as a vessel for smuggling in his firearm across national borders (which Bond subsequently stores with the hotel desk clerk for easy access later, a clever touch showcasing Bond’s resourcefulness).

Bond and Vesper take the Aston for a spin to rendezvous with René Mathis, a charming character who is somewhat ill-used by this film and is downright abused by its follow-up, Quantum of Solace. Mathis recalls those seasoned, world-weary allies like From Russia with Love‘s Kerim Bey, allies who are largely exposition-machines given a bit of local color and the demeanor of a energetic uncle. Mathis’ first scene, in which he demonstrates his resourcefulness by having the local chief of police (Bond producer Michael G. Wilson, in his traditional cameo appearance) framed and arrested, may be his best; for the bulk of the film, he’ll be reduced to over-describing the events of the poker game for the audience’s benefit. But here, he has a sparkle in his eye as he gets to show off his own expertise.

In preparation for the big game, Bond surprises Vesper with a dress, stating that he wants to use her as a visual distraction for the other players in the game. But Bond becomes somewhat indignant when he finds that Vesper has pulled the same move on him, providing him with a chic dinner jacket, noting that his own dinner jacket simply isn’t fine enough to make him look like a millionaire. (The film leaves how Vesper was able to have the jacket tailored something of a mystery. I have always imagined that Vesper requested Bond’s measurements from MI6.)

This plays into a few major strands of the Craig-era’s interpretation of the character: the “working class” streak that we’ve seen the film toy with in the preceding scenes, as well as his place as the films’ primary aesthetic object. The film lingers on Bond as he models the Brioni dinner jacket for the first time, finally clad in the character’s iconic attire. Vesper laughs, a declaration of her own triumph. Bond accepts the light rebuke. He knows he’s been bested. Indeed, Bond looks terrific as he strides into the casino with a panther-like gait that recalls Connery’s own unique form of movement.

He’s utterly unfazed by his first meeting with Le Chiffre, who greets him with the uneasy warmth of a gladiator greeting another before a tournament. Craig and Mikkelsen anchor all of the card-playing drama that follows, and director Martin Campbell and editor Stuart Baird do a truly wonderful job of simply building moments and exchanges just out of their expressions and gestures, constructing a rivalry that peaks during the film’s memorably nasty and intimate torture scene.

Vesper’s entrance interrupts the game. She wears the dress Bond purchased for her, but she’s unwilling to enter on his terms, choosing instead to be a distraction to Bond rather than the players at the table. Having reveled in the pleasure of seeing Bond’s physique framed by black-tie attire, the film now observes Vesper in her striking dress. Bond’s open-mouth gape as she enters serves as a sharp example of Craig’s under-celebrated ability to create comedy out of facial expression, something he plays with in all of these scenes where he is repeatedly challenged, frustrated, and enchanted by Vesper.

Shortly after Vesper’s entrance, Bond effectively halts the game to order his martini, a recipe taken straight from the Fleming novel (an unforgivingly hard blend of vodka and gin only slightly softened by Lillet Blanc). It’s yet another bit of distraction, as well as a declaration of Bond’s own personal affectations. As much as the moment showcases Bond’s character, the bit I always remember most belongs to Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter, whose “keep the fruit” achieves a sublime mixture of preposterousness and coolness (more about Wright’s wonderful Leiter later).

So far, Casino Royale has largely let Vesper have the last word in her prickly interactions with Bond so far. As Bond collects his martini, Vesper chides him for losing so much money so quickly. Bond reveals that he’s been playing strategically; he lost big on the latest hand to identify Le Chiffre’s “tell,” an eye-twitch that shows that Le Chiffre’s bluffing. He walks away and she samples Bond’s martini, entertaining the possibility that Bond might actually know a thing or two.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part VIII

James Bond, released from the custody of the Miami police, disembarks from a helicopter at Dimitrios’ villa and stumbles upon an unexpected, gruesome sight: the body of Solange, tangled in a hammock.

M twists the knife:

“Quite the body count you’re stacking up. She was tortured first.”

Whether M is scolding him or testing him remains unclear. This same ambiguity will trickle over into Skyfall.

At any rate, Bond does not take it well. The camera creeps in on Bond’s face, allowing us to scrutinize Bond’s discomfort. Bond looks away as he nakedly lies to M about how much he had told Solange. Bond exposed himself, and, in his hunt for the villains, has now become indirectly responsible for the death of an innocent.

The Craig films are uniquely preoccupied with the death of women. In Casino RoyaleQuantum of Solace, and Skyfall, a grand total of five women die through their association with Bond. This trope becomes something of a crutch for the film cycle–indeed, Quantum of Solace will wholesale rehash Casino Royale‘s narrative beat with Solange, with similar chastisement for M–but it also creates this sense that Craig’s Bond, insofar as he remains 007, remains trapped in a repetitive cycle. He’s a variation on Scottie Ferguson from Vertigo: a man perpetually losing women who are really all the same woman. Spectre will release Bond from this cycle.

So it is fitting that this midpoint of Casino Royale, in which the film focuses on the character’s central dilemma, takes the form of two back-to-back conversations with the two most significant women of the Craig era, Judi Dench’s M and Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Each, in turn, puts Bond under the microscope, confirming just who this Bond is, and beginning to investigate just who he might become. Both of these women will pull him in different directions.

The Craig era does not indulge the classic structure of Bond films insofar as the standard-issue “mission briefing” trope is concerned. This standard-issue Bond formula component still appears, but it is always repositioned or reworked. This sequence at Dimitrios’ villa, excluding the Solange bookends, may be the closest the Craig films come to giving us the standard-issue exposition dumps that characterize the traditional M/Bond briefing scenes.

M portrays Le Chiffre as a schemer who made a fortune on 9/11, painting him as a War on Terror profiteer (there was additional dialogue cut from the scene that took this to even further lengths). Bond’s thinks that M merely wants Le Chiffre dead (“Do you want a clean kill, or do you want to send a message?”), again underlining his short-sightedness. Bond thinks of himself only as a killer. M wants information.

When Bond suggests that M knew that Bond wouldn’t let the case go, M replies:

“I knew you were you.”

This ambiguous statement qualifies, on one level, as “trailer dialogue” (as previously noted, dialogue designed more to sound significant rather than have any real meaning), and M certainly has already delivered her share of it in Casino Royale. Nevertheless, this serves as a fitting expression of M’s caginess. She refuses to let Bond see what she genuinely thinks about him. It’s a power play and a kind of self-preservation; she needs to always be able to see Bond as a pawn, not as a friend.

The primary cinematic reference point for Bond and Vesper’s meeting on the train is Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, and if Casino Royale‘s dialogue doesn’t achieve that same elegance, the chemistry between its leads is still tremendously strong and elevates the sequence. On the page, Vesper’s part is rather thin; Casino Royale reduces her relationship with Bond to a series of clear bullet point scenes rather than anything more organic. Eva Green, who is often among the best aspects of any film in which she stars, gives Vesper an enigmatic allure beyond the script’s meager characterization.

Bond and Vesper’s initial banter works well enough (“I’m the money” up to “What looks good?”), never becoming preposterously over-stylized, and Craig and Green play off of each other well. In Fleming’s novel, Vesper is little more than a glorified secretary, but in the film, she is smartly made an official of the Treasury who has the power to deny Bond additional funds. Thus the film’s Bond/Vesper relationship unfolds as an ongoing power struggle. Bond films gesture at this sort of give/take relationship all the time, but very rarely do they give the relationship the time and attention to let that dynamic play out with any sort of narrative weight. In this regard, Casino Royale sets the high-water mark for a Bond/Bond girl relationship.

When the scene takes a leap forward in time, we find that Bond has been explaining the rules of poker to Vesper (one of many such moments in the film; the filmmakers clearly did not trust the audience to be able to track with the twists and turns of the card game). This serves as a lead-in to an absurd, but memorable, scene in which Bond and Vesper both analyze and dress-down the other using nothing but the few details they’ve observed in their brief meeting together.

Bond’s observations about Vesper are much more plausible than her observations about him. He lightly touches on her childhood (she’s an orphan, he surmises), but focuses most on how she presents herself professionally, an attractive woman trying to prove herself in a world of men. In order to give her the upper-hand, the film has Vesper making some deductive leaps that, outside of the world of Bond fantasy, seem fairly absurd; she deduces just from the way he wears his clothes some fairly detailed notions of his biography.

Vesper notes that Bond wears his suits with “disdain,” which again reinforces the “working class” streak that characterizes Craig’s Bond. Vesper speculates that this stems from Bond’s school career (at “Oxford or wherever,” she states; per Fleming, Bond attended Eton and Fettes), where he was acutely aware that he wasn’t one of the rich kids surrounding him.

That said, whatever disdain Craig has for the trappings of wealth has not prevented him from pursuing fashion. His trendy look separates him from the more subdued, classically British attire that defined Connery or Dalton, who were the embodiment of Hardy Amies’ maxim that “a man should look as if he has bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care and then forgotten all about them.” Craig’s Bond, with his gelled hair and snazzy designer looks (in Casino Royale, he wears Brioni, and in the following films, he wears Tom Ford), could have stepped out of a photo spread from Esquire.

The scene would be considerably better if it didn’t pause to inject gratuitous product placement in regards to Bond’s Omega Seamaster, which may be the most egregious and offensive moment of product placement in the entire Bond canon. In terms of checking-off the elements of the Bond persona (Vesper talks about his suits, his watches, his work), mentioning his interest in expensive wristwatches would have been quite enough.

In summing up Bond’s attitude to authority–he’s an orphan, and thus inclined to seek for surrogate parents in the form of “Queen and Country”–Vesper effectively summarizes what will become the foundation of the Craig-Bond character. The Craig era concerns itself primarily with “Bond the orphan,” repeatedly turning to the question of Bond’s origins and familial drama. The dominant question of the Craig era is whether or not this damaged Bond can break away from the surrogate family structure he has found in MI6 and create a new, genuine family.

Bond’s smirk after Vesper exits never fails to make me smile. The element that best sells Bond’s attraction to Vesper is that Bond just seems to be having so much damn fun when they’re together. We’re having fun, too.